"Follow Your Bliss": Reflections on 30 Years of Photographing the Guggenheim
David Heald, Director of Photographic Services and Chief Photographer, recently completed thirty years at the Guggenheim. To mark this milestone, Associate Web Editor Gregory Gestner sat down with Heald to discuss his most memorable moments, favorite exhibitions, challenges of the job, and what the future holds.
What are your main responsibilities as Director of Photographic Services and Chief Photographer? How has your job changed over the years?
Our main responsibility, of course, is photographing the collection. We keep extensive records that go back into film, well before my time, close to when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1937.
We also document exhibitions, photograph them as they are installed, and, in many cases, photograph artworks that are on loan to us. Works that are being conserved or restored are photographed before, during, and after treatment.
Being the Guggenheim, my department has a special interest in architectural photography. We photograph the Frank Lloyd Wright building in New York often, and have created architectural views at all of the other Guggenheim sites as well. We also work on location at collectors' homes, or off-site for special books and exhibitions, such as our recent Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective, for which we shot at a number of iconic sites in Wisconsin, including Taliesin East and the Jacobs House I in Madison.
My staff consists of two other people, and we are about to hire an additional person to manage our fast-expanding database of high-resolution digital media assets. This is interesting because it reflects the extent of the ongoing digitization of our content and intellectual property, and the necessity of having a new type of staff. The whole world of digital media assets has exploded into a beast that everyone is trying to understand: how to search, how to conserve, how to maintain, how to access, how to deliver. Because we are a visual arts organization, it is essential that we pay attention to managing these assets.
What is your training, and how did you end up at the Guggenheim?
I have a bachelor's degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and that's where I really got interested in creative photography. My degree is in American Studies, which for me was really a combination of photography and art history.
About a year after I graduated, I was thinking about going to graduate school for photography, but at the time it wasn't such a clear path as it is now, and an opportunity to work in the photo studio of the Cleveland Art Museum came along. I worked there for seven years. I started out in the dark rooms, printing black-and-white contact prints from 8x10 negatives of collection objects. The Cleveland Art Museum has a remarkable collection, and it was a very interesting time to be working there. The director, Sherman Lee, was a celebrity in the art world and a renown scholar of Asian art. Throughout the period I was working there, the museum was acquiring extraordinary Chinese and Japanese paintings, ancient sculpture from India, and major works from all periods of Western art. All of these amazing objects came through the photo studio. For me, it was like attending graduate school, both for the history of art, and for learning technical skills in the studio—working with large-format cameras, lighting sculpture, and all the nuts and bolts of being a museum photographer. I think my starting salary was $7,000 a year.
I was hired at the Guggenheim in 1981 as an associate photographer. The head of the department retired a few years later, I was promoted to his position.
What do you think is unique about working at the Guggenheim as opposed to other museums? Has working here informed your personal creative work?
When I was hired by the Guggenheim in 1981, in addition to my professional duties, I was also pursuing my own creative work—mostly landscapes and portraits in large-format black and white. After coming here, I became very interested in architectural photography, specifically because creating new views of the building was one of my primary responsibilities. It was new to me and was a really compelling aspect of the job. If you look at the photography studios at most of the major museums in the U.S., very few specialize in architectural shooting the way we do. Yes, of course they photograph their buildings, or the galleries and interior spaces, or when there is a renovation or an addition, but here we have a truly iconic architectural masterpiece to work with. And that's noteworthy, because it highlights what many have said, which I believe is quite true: that the most important single work of art in the Guggenheim collection—and we have some important and extraordinary works here—is the Frank Lloyd Wright building. So the Guggenheim is unique in that way.
How have changes in technology affected how you approach your job?
It's been an interesting time to be a photographer in any field. When I started out in Cleveland, we were shooting 8x10 transparencies. When I came to the Guggenheim, we were shooting smaller, 4x5 transparencies, but it was still a view camera, all film technology until the early 2000s. I think we got our first digital camera here around 1999 and we went all digital in 2005. I saw the world of film-based photography gradually disappear at the professional and then the amateur level. And that's been an incredible challenge. The photographer's work of seeing and being sensitive to light, form, and composition are still very much the same, but with the addition of the medium of digital sensors and pixels. How we're delivering, archiving, and manipulating the results have all changed rather dramatically.
What have been some of the most challenging and memorable exhibitions to photograph?
The Nam June Paik show was a tough nut to crack. It was toward the end of his life, and it was all video art. We were not shooting digital then, and it was difficult to get the highlights of a TV screen or the detail on it that you might get with the surroundings. Digital photography has made that kind of challenge much easier.
The Art of the Motorcycle was a great project. My department was very involved shooting bikes for the catalogue. We brought in over 30 bikes owned by various collectors to the studio to photograph. When we started, we created a style of treating motorcycles as sculptures, for example, using a light, neutral background; details of significant aspects of each bike; and different views. It now seems kind of normal, but it's because of that project. Before then, motorcycle books featured a typical commercial style, with attractive young women on the bikes, a black background, etc. But after The Art of the Motorcycle, you began to see a lot of imitators of our style of photography, and you still do today.
Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle was very intensive. When the artist is still alive, it becomes a collaborative process with the Guggenheim and the artist, and we get heavily involved with photographing the process of the installation, often showing the artist at work with Guggenheim staff. Most recently that has been very true for the exhibitions of Maurizio Cattelan, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Lee Ufan.
Is there a particular artist that you remember that was the most colorful or fun to work with? Most difficult?
I've had the good fortune of shooting portraits of and working with Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Raushenberg, James Rosenquist, among many others.
An artist I fondly remember working with is Ellsworth Kelly, whom I met when we worked on the catalogue for his retrospective. He is a wonderful man, and a great artist. We were photographing a number of works in his own collection at his studio in upstate New York, over a period of 4–5 days. He was very generous with his time, quite interested in the process of photography, and very particular about the details of how his work would be reproduced. He took us to lunch each day, and we had great conversations about art and being a creative artist. It was a privilege to work with him.
You photographed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao for its opening in 1997, the results of which became a book. What was that experience like?
I think that building was a major achievement by Frank Gehry. I can still remember seeing it for the first time coming from the airport, thinking, this is just extraordinary. It has Presence. And of course, it is very photogenic. I was photographing it as construction was being completed, because we wanted the book to come out when the museum opened. There was still a lot of construction going on, and I was trying to make it look like it was finished, pristine, even though it wasn't. Not so easy. Armies of cleaning staff would come in during the day because the big Richard Serra piece was already installed, which was covered to keep out the dust, and they would mop the floors to keep the dust levels down while all this finishing and detail work went on. The exterior views were easier. There's a shot of the facade of one of the galleries from that first shoot, before they installed a gate on the ground, that I particularly like. A memorable project and moment in all ways!
In 1995, I was in Venice photographing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and [former director] Thomas Krens was there with Frank Gehry, holding a press conference on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which was under construction at the time. I finished my work, took some vacation time, and when I returned to Venice for one last night, I got a call from the director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection: "We need you to photograph a special event tonight. Princess Diana is coming for a reception, and could you be the photographer please? You will be one of two photographers allowed in to the event." It turned out to be an intimate reception in the beautiful sculpture garden, with numerous dignitaries in attendance. Princess Diana had the most genuine and gracious smile. Tom Krens and Frank Gehry gave her a tour of the Bilbao site model. It was a totally unexpected and poignant moment as she died two years later just before the Bilbao museum opened.
What is your favorite part of the job?
As a photographer, the most interesting part is having three-dimensional objects in front of the camera as opposed to paintings or works on paper. Shooting sculpture is where you really bring your craft or skill to the table. Objects that immediately come to mind are our great early modern sculptures, which came into the collection in the 1950s—Brancusi, Calder, Giacometti—really just gorgeous, classical object photography.
And of course, shooting architectural views of the building and exhibitions have to be standouts. Those two things, and location projects such as photographing Taliesin for the Frank Lloyd Wright show. Architectural photography is my real passion, and I get to do it regularly for this remarkable institution. "Follow your bliss," as they say. It also helps to have great subject matter!
After 30 years, how do you keep seeing—and photographing—the museum in a fresh way?
I still feel there are views that we haven't quite achieved. And it's always good to refresh. When I'm photographing the building, I must say, even when I was shooting the recent John Chamberlain exhibition, I was finding views that I hadn't already done. They are often refinements on aspects that I've seen before, but it's such an extraordinary building—what keeps it fresh is that the design of the building itself is remarkable. It's almost as if you are dealing with, when you visualize all the ramps of the spiral in the rotunda and all the angles, an infinite subject. Light itself is always the key. Some views are obviously more powerful than others, and occasionally, new technology such as super-wide lenses make it possible to do really interesting views, that kind of thing . . . but I'm still discovering views, thirty years later! Which doesn't say so much about me as a photographer, but is certainly a testament to Frank Lloyd Wright. The building is a masterpiece.